The former Springboks scrum-half reflects on the decisive moment of the 2009 series with Jon Cardinelli
Fourie du Preez on facing the British & Irish Lions
With the scores level and time running out on the Loftus Versfeld stadium clock, Lions replacement Ronan O’Gara launched the ball into the highveld sky. At the other end of the park, du Preez, playing on his home ground, tracked the flight of the kick and went up to make the catch.
O’Gara mistimed his own challenge for the ball, took the Springbok scrum-half out in the air, and handed the hosts a chance to win the game.
“As I fell to the ground, I knew it was a penalty,” du Preez remembers. “I sat there and tried to regain my breath. I started to think that we had the chance to kick the penalty and win the series.”
Fourie du Preez on facing the British & Irish Lions
Twelve years earlier, du Preez – then a schoolboy in Pretoria – watched the Lions from the stands.
Martin Johnson’s side won that series 2-1. The impression they made on the next generation of players – particularly those based in South Africa – was significant.
Du Preez progressed through the Blue Bulls ranks and won his first Test cap for the Boks in 2004. Under Jake White, the Boks went on to win the Tri-Nations. Three years later, they won the World Cup in France.
“People ask me to compare the pressure of playing at a World Cup to the pressure of representing your country in a Lions series,” du Preez says. “The pressure at a World Cup is unbelievable. A Lions tour is different in the sense that you’re playing in front of your home crowd.
“I understand that level of expectation, having been a boy in the crowd watching the 1997 tour to South Africa. Like most youngsters, I grew up wanting to play against the All Blacks, win the World Cup and beat the Lions.”
The Boks began that 2009 series in explosive fashion. The final scoreline of 26-21 in the first Test at Kings Park didn’t reflect their dominance. In the second game, however, the Boks were forced to find an extra gear.
“The Lions surprised us at Loftus. They were 20 to 30% more physical and we had to fight to stay in the contest,” du Preez recalls.
“They went out to a big lead, but we didn’t go away. That’s what I remember about that Bok side, we stood up in the big moments even if the situation seemed dire. Slowly but surely, we managed to claw our way back and then finish it off at the end.”
Du Preez believes that O’Gara did well to collect the ball from deep in his own half and then boot it back downfield. The Bok scrum-half charged towards a towering garryowen certain that he would win the contest for the ball.
When O’Gara took du Preez out in the air and the referee awarded the hosts a penalty, the latter was surprised to see his Bulls team-mate rather than South Africa’s long-range specialist calling for the kicking tee.
“The penalty was awarded on our 10m line. As I got up after the fall, I started to look around for Frans Steyn, who usually takes those long-range goal-kicks. But it was Morné (Steyn), playing in only his second Test, who was confident enough to step forward and say, ‘I will knock it over’.
“I’d watched him do it so many times before for the Bulls – and so many times at Loftus. But did I know for sure that he would kick it over in that situation? No, I didn’t.
“Test rugby is very different to Super Rugby and the pressure is immense. Add to that the fact that the kick would decide the game and the series. If we missed that kick, the game would have been a draw and the series would have been decided in the third Test.
“So I stood there, watching Morné approach the tee. As the ball left his boot, I hoped and hoped it would have the distance.
“When it sailed between the posts, we all celebrated like we had won the World Cup all over again. It was very special.”
White has since returned to South Africa to take up a position as director of rugby at the Bulls. The World Cup-winning coach asked du Preez to work as a consultant during the early stages of the domestic season.
It remains to be seen if du Preez will continue to work with the Bulls ahead of their crunch game against the Lions. One thing is for sure, though, he will watch the clash at Loftus, and the subsequent Test series with interest.
“The Lions weren’t ready for that first Test in 2009,” he says. “I doubt they will make the same mistake in 2021.
“Warren Gatland has been successful on past tours to Australia and New Zealand. He knows what’s required in South Africa, having been part of the coaching team in 2009 and having been head coach of Wales for so long.
“England have been playing good rugby and winning big matches. Ireland have a lot of good players, and there are a few from Scotland too. Gatland will know how to get the best out of the Welsh players.
“The Lions certainly have all the ingredients for a successful tour. The Boks will have to be at their very best to come out on top.”
Fourie du Preez’s South Africa travel tips for Lions fans
What would Du Preez do if he were a British or Irish tourist visiting South Africa?
“I would be looking to get as much out of a journey to Africa as possible,” the former Springbok scrum-half says.
“You can’t come as far as South Africa and not visit the Kruger National Park. You have to tick that game drive box.”
One of the largest game reserves on the continent, ‘Kruger’ stretches across the Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces in the north-eastern part of the country. Visitors have the opportunity to see a variety of wild animals, including the ‘Big Five’, up close.
Du Preez confirms that the region has more to offer than game-viewing. In the lead-up to the Lions matches played in Gauteng, fans should make the time for a two- or three-day getaway.
“We have some great golf courses in South Africa. A round at Leopard Creek (in Mpumalanga) should be on any golfer’s bucket-list,” says du Preez, who plays off a low handicap.
“If I were a travelling supporter or even a visiting player, I would book a round of golf and organise a game drive at Kruger before considering any other activity.”
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